(5) The Familiar and the Commonplace

Our relationship to miracles and the miraculous is ambivalent. On the one hand, we crave the extraordinary and devour all reports and rumors of the occurrence of an event believed impossible; on the other hand, we fear such events because we perceive the unplanned, unwanted, unforeseen as a threat to our security. By contrast, the attitude of science is unambiguous. It scorns the miracle and mocks all who believe in it. If the validity of the laws of nature does by definition not allow any exception, there can be no miracles.

Science also rejects the miraculous, unless it elevates the formulas by which it describes physical processes, e.g., Einstein’s famous equation quantifying the ratio of mass to energy, to the status of objects of awe and admiration because of their miraculous simplicity. However, most scientists hasten to emphasize that even this formula only expresses that everything in the world happens in a completely natural way, so there too we find nothing miraculous. We can at most marvel at the extraordinary intelligence of those people who were the first to explain the machinery of nature and to represent it in such elegant and simple formulas.

Discussions about the miraculous in nature

take place in science at best among the real experts, e.g., when they try to understand quantum theory. After all, one of the most prominent authorities in the field, physicist Richard Feynman, was moved to remark, “If you think you understand quantum theory . . . you don’t understand quantum theory.”

No doubt, this statement provides a direct confrontation with the miraculous. A theory which in practice allows useful statisti­cal predictions of physical processes is said to be inaccessible to reason. This is also illustrated by the so-called Copenhagen inter­pretation with the popular metaphor of a black box. If we do not open it, the cat inside is both dead and alive. As soon as we open it, it is only one of both: either dead or alive.

If you want to understand the paradox of the cat

that is dead and alive at the same time, you must go beyond the metaphor. You must complete years of study in quantum physics. This could be interpreted as if the encounter with the miraculous had to remain the preserve of the experts. Doesn’t this remind us of earlier, dark times when religion reigned supreme? For a millennium and a half, reading the Bible was the privilege of experts, i.e., priests. To prevent people from relying on their own judgment and criticizing its often grotesque and contradictory content, the priests not only insisted that the Bible remain inaccessible to lay people, but also that sermons be delivered in a language they could not understand, namely Latin. If unautho­rized persons nevertheless dared to enter the enclosure of the priestly monopolists of truth, they risked persecution as heretics, possibly even death at the stake.

Meanwhile, the natural sciences have become no less remote from the understanding of ordinary people. With the cordon sanitaire of their respective technical language, they effectively close themselves off from the laity. Thus, the impression must arise that only those have the right to talk about God and nature who successfully completed specialized seminars and acquired the corresponding diploma.

In contrast, the democratic task of critical

thinking is to prove that even the highest towers of religion and science are built on the pedestal of a few basic truths that every human being is capable of understanding. We do not have to look for the miraculous in quantum theory – it reveals itself much more obviously and with far greater clarity in quite familiar and everyday facts. To open our eyes to this truth was the aim of Kant’s “pure reason” (when he discussed antinomies).

Let’s take a process of seemingly utmost banality, like the movement of my arm because I want to move it. Or think of the departure of an army of tankers to the Ukrainian border because Vladimir Putin just gave the order to do so. Mere thoughts – the modifications of neurons within a human brain – can trigger the greatest physical events, although according to the textbooks of physics even the smallest change or movement is fundamentally dependent on and caused by natural laws. However, the thoughts in the head of a Vladimir Putin or of all those billions of actors who constantly change the events in our world are not due to any natural law known to us.

This obvious contradiction,

this confrontation with the miraculous, which so far defies any explanation, is hardly ever discussed. Experts are agreed that this problem is none of their business – at least for the time being. Problems that – at least for the moment – seem unsolvable are tacitly suppressed. The representatives of religion were anxious to hide the contradictions and riddles of the Bible from people so that they would not doubt their supposedly higher knowledge, the experts of science suppress the most elementary riddles of reality for quite the same reason. In other words, the experts keep silent about the miraculous. This saves them from admitting their ignorance.

The familiar is anything but ordinary

This insight imposes itself the moment we realize that the ordinary is by no means identical with what we understand. Let us take another example. As long as people believed that the earth was a disk, there existed an upside as well as a downside. The sky above your head indicated the direction upwards. So, once you reached the edge of the disk you would, of course, fall downwards. Meanwhile we know that the earth is a sphere and therefore there can be neither top nor bottom. Or more correctly said, the sky above the heads of the Australians designates the direction upwards for them as well as for us on the opposite side of the sphere. But this means that the idea of above and below, so familiar to each of us, cannot apply to cosmological space. It is, in fact, just as incomprehensible as the force of gravity that keeps every German just as firmly glued to the planet as Australians on the other side of the globe.

Gravity is such an ordinary fact of everyday life that no one gives it any thought at all. Nevertheless, we could apply Richard Feynman’s above-mentioned statement to gravitation too: “If you think that you have understood gravitation … then /that is proof/ that you do not understand it.” It is true that physics has no difficulty in quantifying its effects with the greatest accuracy for any distance from the center of the earth. Nevertheless, this invisible force is beyond our understanding. We know that it exists and has exactly measurable effects, but why it is there and why this invisible force succeeds to glue us reliably to the globe and to steer the course of far-away celestial bodies, we simply do not know. Some (like for instance Karl Popper) concluded that questions about the essence of physical phenomena are inadmissible and should therefore be kept out of science. The essence of any force, i.e., what it actually is, need not interest us, it is sufficient that we can describe its effects in detail and use them for our purposes. 

Others have grasped the obvious paradox

To these others belongs no less a person than Immanuel Kant, who dealt with a similar problem, namely the extension of space. Its experience is one of the habitual facts of life about which we seldom or never think. But once this happens, we immediately encounter the miraculous – Kant called it “antinomy” (an impasse for perception and conception as well). We cannot accept that the world is finite, because after every limit we expect further spaces. But we cannot imagine its infinity either, because infinity is for us inconceivable. At this point Kant encountered the wonder of a world that is beyond human comprehension. This is how he presented the paradoxical in the chapter On the Antinomies of Pure Reason. This will be discussed later (cf. chapter Pioneers of Antignosis: Hume, Kant, Popper).

The fact is that our ability to comprehend reality

is limited. This explains why we are so much shaken by the antinomy of space, which we can neither imagine to be finite nor infinite. Our senses and our mind are made for the intermediate world between the infinite smallness of the atoms and the infinite grandeur of the universe. More than a century ago, quantum physics had already shown that we do not understand the realm of the very small. In our time modern astrophysics has demon­strated the same truth for the realm of the exceedingly large. It points to black holes, so-called “singularities”, where the laws of nature that govern the Intermediate World lose their validity and possibly universes with completely different regularities arise.There will be an eternal dispute among experts about the paradoxes of time and space. But this need not interest us. We may forget quantum physics, and the singularities of astrophysics. That is not the place where we need to look for the miraculous – it surrounds us on all sides. But we don’t notice it because we confuse the ordinary with what we understand. Chapter taken from my book The Miraculous and its Enemies).